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Global Reproductive Health on the Ballot this November

If Democrats are elected, we can have a new president and a congress that will fight to repeal the Helms Amendment and safeguard accessible and affordable healthcare everywhere.

2020 has the chance to be a historic year for international reproductive rights.  (Photo: Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images)

2020 has the chance to be a historic year for international reproductive rights. (Photo: Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images)

Content warning: This piece contains content relating to sexual violence. These stories were collected in partnership with activist Lisa Shannon, founder of Every Woman Treaty, and use pseudonyms as requested by the storytellers to protect their identities.

As the GOP rushes to attempt to confirm anti-abortion supreme court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the election, discussion about the future of Americans’ reproductive rights dominates headlines. The GOP’s ongoing war on reproductive health abroad, however, has remained largely overlooked.

Nearly 50 years ago, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina championed an amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act that prohibited the use of U.S. funds for abortion “as a method of family planning.” Still in force today, the Helms Amendment has always been treated as a total ban. It has had devastating effects on millions of lives, denying access to abortion even in the most extreme cases.

Kaltuun, a 17-year-old Somali girl, was trapped in a forced marriage to a man more than three times her age. He regularly beat and raped her. She begged her family to take her back. Then she became pregnant. Desperate and unable to obtain an abortion, at 8 months pregnant she walked outside, doused herself in gasoline, and set herself on fire. She lived, severely burned and with nowhere to go.

Aisha grew up in Nairobi’s notorious Kibera slum. When she was 16, money for food and school fees ran out. There was an older man—32, married with several children—who was willing to pay 150 Kenyan shillings (less than $1.50) for sex. She used the money to return to school, and pay for food. After becoming pregnant, Aisha went to a “curtain clinic” for an abortion. For $30, they gave her a pill and suppository, which she administered at home. She began bleeding heavily and became frightened. Aisha went to the hospital, where she claimed she was having a miscarriage. When the medical staff found the suppository inside of her, not fully dissolved, they became abusive. They sent her home, where the partial abortion went septic—a life-threatening complication. Her aunt took her to another hospital. The fetus had gotten stuck on expulsion from her womb. A doctor there was able to complete the abortion, but it took Aisha a full month to recover.

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Stories like Kaltuun’s and Aisha’s are horrifying, but they are far from uncommon. Since 1973, millions of women and girls just like them have suffered thanks to the Helms Amendment. Millions more will suffer in the years to come, unless we in the U.S. rise up and declare “enough.”

This summer, for the first time, a bill introduced in the House seeks to undo the legacy of Helms and establish that the fight for reproductive rights is, and must be, a global one. The Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act, sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, along with 45 co-signers, would repeal the Helms Amendment and establish access to safe abortion as a critical part of reproductive health care around the world.

The momentum is building. In 2016, Democratic candidates made a historic pledge to repeal Helms. The 2020 Democratic National Committee recently announced that it will include language in the Party Platform to end Helms and repeal the ban on U.S. aid for abortion overseas.

2020 has the chance to be a historic year for international reproductive rights. Despite the GOP’s fearmongering, Democrats are demanding action. If Democrats are elected, we can have a new president and a congress that will fight to repeal the Helms Amendment and safeguard accessible and affordable healthcare everywhere.

Stacie Murphy

Stacie Murphy is the director of congressional relations at Population Connection Action Fund, a nonprofit focused on mobilizing action against restrictive global reproductive health funding policies.

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